REPORT: Can robots help tackle labour shortages in horticulture? The UK government thinks it can, and has funded research into software to help speed their development.

The potential for robotics to help address issues with labour in horticulture has been recognised with government funding to carry out research into automation and digitalisation of harvesting, with a R&D partnership project gaining more than £3.8m to accelerate the delivery of robotic crop harvesting systems.

Launched this spring, the Agri-OpenCore project aims to tackle the lack of seasonal labour in the UK horticulture industry and is looking to accelerate the delivery of robotic crop systems for horticulture. Many crops have gone unpicked in recent seasons, leading to large amounts of unnecessary waste. President of the National Farmers Union (NFU) Minette Batters has said that the waste in the food sector is an ‘absolute crisis’. The Lincoln Institute of Agri-Food Technology (LIAT) at the University of Lincoln, UK, is partner in Agri-OpenCore alongside project lead APS Produce with Dogtooth Technologies, Wootzano and Xihelm.

There is currently no robotic harvesting system that can match the speed of human picking. Agri-OpenCore aims to make progress in this area by cutting the time and cost of developing a robotic harvesting system that achieves parity with human picking. To deliver this, Agri-OpenCore will establish the world’s first open development platform for agri-robotic harvesting, aiming to develop commercial robotic systems for tomato and strawberry harvesting that achieve humanpicking-
cost-parity in two years.

Phil Pearson, group development director, APS Group, said: “Agri-OpenCore is an exciting and vital project for the fresh produce industry. It promises to deliver the significant progress required to automate fresh produce harvesting in the UK. As this work brings leading technology providers, Dogtooth, Xihelm and Wootzano, with the academic excellence of the University of Lincoln team, we can expect significant progress towards autonomous harvesting.”

So who are these providers and what are they offering?

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